Nominalization is the use or creation of nouns from words that normally act as verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Many verbs, for example, are an expression of action. The act itself, however, can also be expressed as a thing, an activity, a noun.
The italicized words in the above paragraph are two instances of nominalization. The word “act” is normally a verb, such as in the sentence, “I act innocently to avoid punishment.” The same word is used as a noun in, “The act doesn’t fool my mother.” When a word remains unchanged between these two uses, it is referred in linguistics as a zero-derivation conversion. It is not unusual in many languages.
The second example in the first paragraph is more common, and of more interest to people who study the structure of languages. In, “My action deserved a scolding,” the verb “act” has been converted to a noun with the addition of a suffix. Such changes are referred as derivational morphology. Different languages have different rules of grammar for nominalization. The use of affixes — the attachment or insertion of additional sound to a given word to change its meaning — is very typical.
There is one type of affix called a suprafix that is somewhat uncommon. Also called an initial-stress derived noun, the nominalization is achieved solely by syllabic inflection. The verb “pro·test′” versus the noun which stresses the first syllable “pro′·test” is an example.
Although not an affix, another common method of nominalization in many languages is to precede or follow a word with a simple, functional particle. In the Mandarin dialect of Chinese, the ideogram character pronounced “de” will follow a verb or adjective to turn the word into a noun. The particle “to” that precedes an English verb is called an infinitive and can be a noun, such as in, “To err is forgivable of children.”
Usually interchangeable with the infinitive above, English also uses the present participle form of verbs ending in “-ing” as a type of noun called a gerund. An example sentence using a gerund phrase is, “Acting on fear has unpredictable consequences.” Gerunds and infinitives are also called verbal nouns. In contrast, a deverbal noun, such as in, “Acting is an unpredictable vocation,” expresses something concrete.
Descriptive adjectives are nominalized even more commonly than verbs. “Red” can be the attribute of an apple, or a child’s favorite color. “An innocent child” is easily changed to, “innocence.” The nominalization of adjectives are often as simple as tacking on the suffix “-y,” but it can also become somewhat unwieldy, such as in “unpredictability.” Adverbs which modify verbs, and often already end in the suffix “-ly” can also be converted into a noun, but this is awkward and quite rare.